John Cheever: The National Pastime (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 10)

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The feeling that I could not assume my responsibilities as a baseball player without some help from him was deep, as if parental love and baseball were both national pastimes.

For Week 10 of my Deal Me IN 2016 short story project, I selected the Two of Diamonds, my first Wild Card of the year. For Wild Cards, I haven’t purposely made the decision to choose a story that is connected to the topic I’ve chosen for that suit; however, in the case of this week, I’ve selected John Cheever’s short story “The National Pastime” which has a baseball connection which also happens to be the category for all of my Diamond stories. I’ve wanted to read more Cheever stories since I read the beautiful and depressing “The Country Husband” last year. “The National Pastime” was recommended to me when I first started posting about my interest in baseball stories. It’s just taken me a while to find it.


Eben narrates the story about his relationship to his father, Leander, who was sixty years old at Eben’s birth. Leander suffered a major disappointment with the untimely birth of his son and forever associated Eben with it. At a young age, when Eben became interested in baseball, Leander injured his son while playing catch. Was the injury on purpose or accidental? It doesn’t really matter as Eben then continues to associate the injury with baseball  for the rest of his life. He goes out of his way to hide from other kids on the playground who decide to strike up a game. This fear of baseball follows him and has some drastic effects even into his college days and his career.

In a different story, it would be easy for the reader to hate Leander and feel sorry for Eben. At the same time, a reader might also want to tell Eben to “get over it”. Neither of these cases happened for me as Cheever puts enough depth into Leander so as to make him intriguing if not likable. Cheever also keeps Eben from completely hating or disowning his father even in the face of Leander’s obvious parental failures.

The story is set in rural St. Boltoph, Massachusetts not far from the ocean. Leander brags about the ocean experience of his ancestors and seems to always have some aspect of the sea about him. Interestingly enough, while he muses about his inability to play baseball and his father’s responsibility for that, Eben finds himself working on an oil rig and eventually establishes his career on the ocean. Irony? Perhaps.

Just as Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata plays in the background of “The Country Husband”, as Eben walks away from a baseball field that ended his teaching career, Cheever puts Chopin’s preludes into the story:

I took off my uniform and stood for a long time in the shower. Then I dressed and walked back across the quadrangle, where I could hear, from the open windows of the music building, [a colleague] playing the Chopin preludes. The music – swept with rains, with ruins, and unrequited and autumnal loves, with here and there a passage of the purest narcissism – seemed to outrage my senses, and I wanted to stop my ears. 

My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.



5 responses to “John Cheever: The National Pastime (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 10)

  1. When I was in high school, I think John Cheever’s big “complete stories” came out and I read a bunch of them. I don’t recall this one, though. Its been a long time since I read him but I think I still have that thick red paperback around the house somewhere….

  2. “The National Pastime” was not in the big Cheever collection of “complete stories” because he left it out on purpose. However it is included in the Library of America collection of Cheever stories.

    • I also found it in a collection called “The Only Game in Town: Sportswriting from the New Yorker”. It’s a good story. I’m glad it didn’t just disappear. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Pingback: John Cheever: The Five-Forty-Eight (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 1) | Mirror with Clouds

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